Exploding The Senses

Crossing Into The Unknown with Wine, Cheese and Music ◆ by Brenda McNellen and Kristen Strandberg

In the past, high-end restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York City have encouraged the transcendence that can come from focusing on one sense at a time; fully engaging with the spirit of the food by isolating it from the realm of the everyday. Its menu was a model for controlled experiences: a minimalist grid that looks almost like a periodic table, isolating each ingredient of a meal. The diners would select four elements they wanted and the chef would prepare a meal incorporating these as the center of each course. This mindfulness about food spread to other parts of the diner’s experience—serious diners would limit the amount of conversation during meals in order to focus on the food. Classical music resided in a similar realm—during the late 18th century a hush descended upon audiences when the culture of listening changed to include expectations of absolute quiet during performances and restricting applause to the correct places in a performance in order to avoid breaks in focus.  In many classical performances today, this tradition of a purely musical focus continues: consider the outburst of anger by the New York Philharmonic’s audience members and conductor, who stopped a 2012 performance when a patron’s cell phone rang during Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

Demand for multi-sensory experiences however, is increasing, even in the realms of classical music and food.  This past August, the Cincinnati Symphony performed a free outdoor concert with images and 3D animation projected onto the front of its home building, accompanied with music by Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Strauss. In a move that shocked the restaurant world, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park announced in 2012 that the restaurant would be doing away with its grid menu in favor of a four-hour narrated meal encompassing the history of New York and including visuals such as a cheese course hidden inside a picnic basket, and a magic trick predicting the dessert. There was a lot of buzz about this change. Would Eleven Madison Park stay in business if diners had to commit to a four-hour meal experience? Would patrons see this change as a kitschy degradation of the dining experience? Would its ranking as number 10 in the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list be jeopardized?

As with Eleven Madison Park’s announcement, most of these changes, sometimes couched in terms of attracting a new generation to participate, are often met with a good deal of skepticism. What could happen if experiences become meaningless because of all this sensory overload? In an April Fool’s day post about the Jacobs School of Music from 2009, the school is (falsely) reported to have hired popular violinist Andre Rieu and installed in the Musical Arts Center a “new jewel-studded shell, incorporating festive colors, over 5,000 energy-efficient twinkling LED lights, and several dozen miniature mirrors with gilded Rococo frames,  . . . [and] a mechanized chandelier, capable of ascending and descending in under seven seconds.”

But what if these combinations can actually enhance or reframe our experiences? In Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks (which made New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s 10 Favorite Books of 2012), the author discusses sensory deprivation as an aid to altering experience, but also includes the epiphanies produced by experiences in combination. He mentions being unable to remember how the color indigo really looked to him until it reappeared to him at a musical concert in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “a Monteverdi piece was performed, and I was utterly transported. I had taken no drugs, but I felt a glorious river of music, four hundred years long, flowing from Monteverdi’s mind into my own. In this ecstatic mood, I wandered out during the intermission and looked at the ancient Egyptian objects on display—lapis lazuli amulets, jewelry, and so forth—and I was enchanted to see glints of indigo. I thought: Thank God, it really exists!” (Sacks, 110-111)

In a quest to find out how those around us felt about multisensory experience in the realms of taste and music, we interviewed some well-known Bloomingtonians that were likely candidates for immersion in these types of experiences. We wanted to know whether the mingling of senses was a distraction for them or an integral part of broadening the mind and remembering experiences.

Patricia Stiles, IU Jacobs School of Music professor and renowned opera singer who has performed in the Kennedy Center and opera houses across Europe, describes how for her, as a performing opera singer, music was almost never experienced in isolation from touch, smell, and taste.  As a performer, Stiles said, the tactile experience of singing in an opera–the smells and feelings of being onstage—were inseparably linked to her experience of the music.  “That’s the thing about opera,” she says, “it’s everything at once.  Even the smell–there are a lot of different smells you would like to forget from the other people who have worn the costume, the sweat . . . and that’s part of the experience.”  She recalls love scenes in which the singer opposite her was drenched in sweat, and says that this changes the experience of the music for her, and becomes a part of her sensory experience as a whole.  Costumes bring a similar tactile element to the production.  She says that “the sensory feeling of the costumes and the whole look of the stage goes a lot with music for me.  The physical feeling of the costumes . . . [provide] a tactile sensation, and even the rustling sound when you move . . . it has a life of its own.”

One of Stiles’s most memorable costumes was that of a tree/human hybrid in a production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in Germany.  She describes a bizarre ensemble that included fake tree limbs with leaves on her arms and head, high heels, and very realistic fake bare breasts.  She says that felt very odd, but was also liberating and fun to have such a bizarre costume that so drastically changed her appearance. She felt that she was transformed by the costume when onstage and will always remember the shift in perception that came from the feeling of wearing that costume in combination with performing the role of Erda, goddess of the earth.

For Jeffery Schauss, who is married to Patricia Stiles and also a wine buyer for Sahara Mart, analogous experiences like tasting wine and listening to music inform how we think about and describe them. Within both tasting and listening experiences there are layers of complexity. Individual wine tasters may focus on texture, flavor notes, or unexpected combinations of tastes that change from moment to moment as music listeners may focus on rhythms, harmony, sudden key or chord changes, or repeated patterns in music.

Schauss looks for balance in pairing wine with food or music, as he recommends that one sense not overpower another when layering sensory elements, even within a single sensory experience.  Cheaper wines, he says, possess one “note” or category of flavor that often takes over the taste of the wine, such as fruity, floral, or nutty.  By contrast, a higher-end wine “is like a symphony,” says Schauss, “it just keeps working,” as the taste evolves and changes over time.  Along with the taste itself, texture also plays a role in Schauss’s experience with wine.  While acknowledging that each person’s experience will be different, he says: “My mind goes more to that symphony . . . [or] to that velvet–not so much red raspberry or black cherry.”  Schauss considers texture, complexity, and layers, while sometimes describing the wine to customers in tactile or aural terms.

Dmitri Vietze, the director of Rock Paper Scissors, a Bloomington company that nationally markets and publicizes world music ensembles, feels that music and food are each accessible introductions to different types of people and cultures. He says, “People are trying to get a sense of who they are through understanding who other people are, and also expand the horizons of their own identity by experiencing other tastes, whether it’s musically or culinarily . . . it’s that diversity of options and opportunity that marks the era that we live in.” Similar to the complex wines referenced by Schauss, one of the main attractions of world music is its combination of familiar musical elements with unexpected sounds, rhythms and patterns that grab the attention of listeners.  The most frequent tactile sense associated with music, says Vietze, is not the taste of food or wine, but the feel of dance, including a heartbeat and moving body along with “the nervousness and the sexuality . . . the relationships, and the happiness” when music and dance are combined.

For Vietze as well as Stiles, a combination of sensory elements is what distinguishes unforgettable memories. One of his own most vivid memories stems from the day of his daughter’s birth.  “It was raining when my wife went into labor so there was the smell of rain. We played music in the early stages of labor . . . by Ayub Ogada, a Kenyan singer who also plays a little traditional lyre and taps his feet with jingles on his ankles.”  Vietze says that whenever he hears that music, “the rain, the smell, the music, the new hope and innocence of a new baby come right back to me.”

But is it possible to deliberately create these unforgettable memories for people with different sensory preferences by combining smell/taste/touch, and hearing/sight, in the way of Eleven Madison Park? Christine Buras, opera singer from the Jacobs School of Music and wine and cheese buyer for Bloomingfoods, thinks that while focus on certain aspects of the tasting experience are important, multi-sensory experiences can and should be constructed to deepen our enjoyment and understanding.

Buras remarks that getting customers to try a type of cheese may often entail convincing them to favor one sense over another. “Cheese doesn’t taste the way it smells. One of the smelliest cheeses we have is Taleggio, which is an Italian cow’s milk, soft-rind cheese, and it’s a pink, washed-rind cheese, cured in beer or wine. When you think of smelly, ugly cheeses, this is definitely in that category—it has green and white mold all over it normally, but the cheese inside is very mild, milky, clean and delicious. We don’t advise that people eat the rind. You would have to close your mind to the look and the smell of the outside, and open it to the taste of the cheese inside.” Very often, however, the texture of a cheese will complement the taste—people who know a lot about cheese will come in and ask for an aged cheddar or gouda with more granularity, which makes it crumbly.

As someone whose life revolves around wine, cheese, and music, Buras naturally thinks of ways to bring the three together. We asked her how she might create a beginning-to-end-of-evening experience with these three elements and she created a specific plan.  She would start with something “light and playful and spontaneous,” with a white wine, as moving from lighter to heavier is a good rule of thumb.  She would pair the wine with a fresh goat cheese or Saint-André, a French triple-crème cheese.  Buras suggests the piano music of French composer Erik Satie for this course, as it is fun and quirky without being intrusive.

For a second course of cheese, wine, and music, Buras recommends a full-bodied red wine such as a Malbec with Old Amsterdam (an aged Gouda), or an aged Cheddar or Gruyère.  The aged Gruyère, she notes, is something “we don’t see a lot of in Bloomington, but it’s worth finding.”  As an after dinner course, Stilton is often paired with Port. Some Stiltons have holes drilled in them and are then soaked in a ruby port. “By the time you get to that you’re fully into British culture,” says Buras, so she would pair it with Howells organ music, Elgar, Vaughn Williams— “something with really lush chords.”  For the wine, she recommends a fruity red such as a Zinfandel or Port.

While we may be losing the intensity of focus on one sense in realms like classical music and food (that have often tried to keep these experiences pure at their most elite levels), the trend of creating indelible memories by experimenting with new combinations of sensory experiences will probably be too great for most customers to ignore. What happened to Eleven Madison Park after their change to a four-hour experience menu? They jumped from number ten to number five on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and business is booming.  The World’s 50 Best Restaurants website calls it “a dining experience that is as delightful as it is engaging.”  Perhaps an “engaging” experience is just what diners and concert-goers are looking for, as multi-sensory stimulation is becoming the norm, creating new experiences with innovative combinations of existing elements.  Can’t afford the trip to New York and the $200 meal at Eleven Madison Park?  We hope that you take inspiration from them by experimenting with your own memorable combinations.

The Ryder ◆ November 2013


Falling In Love, With Panache

From salsa to hiphop, local dance studio celebrates five years of mad moves ◆ by Rachael Himsel

Tom Slater’s first time happened after watching Saturday Night Fever.

He was 16, and he got hooked on the hustle. After watching John Travolta’s gyrations, Tom danced his own first dance, and will never forget his intro to dance: that first Latin hustle class, that fake ID, that first trip to a nightclub in Boston to try out his new moves.

Today, Tom is a World Exhibition Champion with a host of dancing, teaching and judging credits to his name; he’s toured cross-country and internationally, appeared in national commercials, and coached movie stars. Now, he spends much of his time at the dance studio he’s been with since the doors opened: Panache Dance.

Age 16 is considered a late entry into the art – but one of the key messages at Panache is that it’s never too late to learn to dance – and that anyone can dance.

And no one knows that better than Scott and Sandy. The two were in their mid-twenties when they discovered dance, after attending a free dance lesson in Fort Wayne. They fell in love with dance, and when they moved to Bloomington, they sought out a similar studio but had trouble finding one. They spent hours driving back to Fort Wayne and to Indianapolis to keep up their dance chops. They realized there was a need for an inclusive, fun dance studio in Bloomington and decided to build one.

That was five years ago. Today, Panache Dance Studio is home to over a dozen series dance classes and dance fitness classes every week. It is a place for people to lose their dance virginity, or deepen existing relationships with movement to music.

From the Pulitzer to Paris

Douglas Hofstadter’s first time was in Paris.

“It was 2010, and I was on sabbatical from IU and working very hard on a book on analogies. I started attending group classes in Cuban salsa twice a week at ‘Paris Mambo’…I loved salsa music and the astounding sensual grace of it, but I was a total beginner and, I must say, a rather slow learner. But I stuck with it and hung in there and in those eight months I learned quite a bit,” said Doug, the  Pulitzer-prize winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (GEB), renowned academic in the world of cognitive science, and Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University.

But even Pulitzer Prize winners have their fears. Before he discovered the Parisian dance studio, Doug described the idea of dancing as terrifying. “I can’t say exactly why, but watching good dancers made me feel both very inferior and very jealous. Graceful dancing is just so beautiful and so natural that seeing people who could do it well always used to make me feel as if I was missing out on the true secret of what life is all about, and that sense of profound loss was a horrible, gut-wrenching feeling.”

“The aching yearning that I felt to be able to do that kind of thing myself is almost indescribable. In Paris, though, I finally screwed up my courage and bit the bullet. I took the first steps toward changing that sad frame of mind.”

When Doug returned from Paris, he felt he had to continue his salsa lessons, and found two excellent possibilities – Ritmos Latinos on campus, and Panache Dance. 
At Ritmos, Doug continued Cuban salsa, while at Panache he started learning LA-style salsa with Sandy, and cha-cha with Tom. “Both my Ritmos and Panache classes were inspiring to me and wound up having lasting impacts on my life, especially the classes at Panache.”

Lasting impact for Doug came in the form of Baofen Lin, a woman in Tom Slater’s cha-cha class.

“I had a crush on her from the very first time I spied her – but I didn’t know her name or a thing about her. Luckily, in Tom’s class, we had to rotate partners every few minutes, so I got to dance with this mysterious Chinese beauty every so often…I was a bit unsure of myself, so when we danced – and I was holding her in my arms! – we hardly exchanged any words at all. And it didn’t hurt that she was also one of the best dancers in the class, so that I had not just one, but two reasons for looking forward to her coming around to me every 20 minutes or so.”

One evening after Tom’s class Doug and Baofen began talking about their mutual interest in foreign languages, and walked down to Subway for tea and discussed having a ‘language exchange’ – what Doug says was, “A thinly-veiled way of saying, ‘Let’s get to know each other.’” A few days later, they had a real date at the Runcible Spoon, and soon “one thing led to another.”

Baofen and Doug were married on September 1st, 2012, at Deer Park Manor. To start the evening’s festivities, the couple performed an elaborate dance routine, beginning with the cha-cha (of course), then moving into a lively Cuban salsa “rueda”, a circle made up of the bride, groom and five other couples (including Sandy and Scott) in which everyone constantly changes partners. “That evening, was amazing for me – not only getting married to someone terrific, but also dancing up a storm, doing cha-cha and salsa and swing and a bit of rumba and fox trot,” remembers Doug. “I was nothing like the toe-tied teen-ager I’d been in Geneva, nothing like the guy who for so many decades was terrified to death of dancing of any sort at all. It was like I was a completely reborn person! What a revolution in my life!”

The Myers’ quickly discovered another need they could fill – dancing for fitness. The term ‘dance fitness’ includes a variety of styles – from hip hop to Zumba to Bollywood. Panache instructors are also known to take two styles and meld them together, creating unique dance fusions that are both fun and challenging for students.

One instructor, Darrelyn Valdez, has created several new dance classes. “That’s one aspect that I love about Panache. Sandy and Scott allow us to be as creative as we want. We have done some crazy fusion stuff!”

Darrelyn has been a driving force behind creating a class called Triple Threat, which gives several teachers the chance to lead dance numbers. At least four or five teachers lead songs in the 50-minute class, and as many as nine teachers have participated.

Besides Triple Threat, Darrelyn teaches Bollywood classes at Panache, and other dance fitness classes for IU, Monroe County Community School Corporation, and St. Marks Church, for a total of about 15 classes per week – all while juggling being a mom and working for MCCSC.

“I truly believe in everybody moving – that’s what’s important. It doesn’t matter what they do, as long as they’re moving. It’s about having fun and not worrying about whether you’re getting it right or not.”

A dance studio for the rest of us.

The fear of ‘getting it right’ is what holds many people back from walking into a dance studio, a worry that Donna Macri Stevens understands well. Mix in a busy schedule – Donna is Director of HR at IU’s School of Education and a mom – and it’s a small miracle Donna and her husband Phil made it to Panache. “I had wanted to take lessons for years, but couldn’t seem to find time for lessons in our busy schedules. Plus, all kinds of fears jumped to the surface – would we make fools of ourselves? Would we meet anyone our own age? Would it be all work and no play? Would people laugh at us as we stepped on one another’s toes?”

Donna and Phil were thrilled to discover their fears were unfounded. “The instructors helped us feel comfortable from day one, and all our fears melted away as we learned new moves and began to dance! Dancing at Panache was fun, and we found ourselves both comforted by others who were also just learning, and inspired by those who had been taking lessons for longer. Both groups of dancers, as well as the instructors, helped us to know that we had nothing to fear and inspired us to want to learn more…we’ve now made time for dance every week since.”

Donna and her husband Phil have taken classes in waltz, foxtrot, tango, rumba, mambo, salsa, East and West Coast swing, and the hustle. Like Doug, Donna also feels that she has found deep personal relationships at this little dance studio: “Through our lessons at Panache, we’ve developed lasting friendships with a wide variety of people, and we now have a fun and healthy hobby that brings us closer together and gets us out and about a bit more with a new group of friends. Panache is not only a dance and fitness studio – it’s also a family.” This family is made up of all genders, sizes, and sexuality. Many same-sex couples have come to Panache because of its welcoming reputation.

“Bloomington offers lots of opportunities to be a passive participant in the arts scene….you can go to the opera, take in a show, attend a gallery opening or hear a local singer songwriter perform. But there are few opportunities for the rest of us to be a more active participant in the arts scene,” Donna pointed out. “Dance is one way that each of us can actively participate, and it’s something that is accessible to people of all ages, from the very young to the very old. Panache helps provide a way to bring more people into the world of social dancing, making dancing a possibility for us all.”

Whether falling in love with the beautiful woman whose name you don’t yet know, or falling in love with your husband all over again after thirty years together, the power of dance is immense. Most of us remember our first time dancing – whether feeling a hot, sweaty post-dance buzz or gazing into your partner’s eyes, we experience dance in our muscles, in our bones, and in our souls. And here in Bloomington, Scott and Sandy Myers have created a safe haven for anyone wanting to be more physical, meet new people, hear new music, or maybe – just maybe – fall in love, one dance step at a time.

[Author’s Note: This month, Panache Dance Studio celebrates its fifth anniversary. As she looks to the future, co-owner Sandy Myers plans to continue creating an all-inclusive yet family-like feeling at Panache, while bringing in new clients: “I want to include more people in our community. I want more people to know what we’re about and come try it out. We are always growing, always learning.”] [Editor’s Note: Panache students will show what they have learned at their semi-annual showcase, a weekend of performances that lets Panache dancers of all skill levels share their talents: November 1st and 2nd @ 7:30 pm 
$15 adults, $12 students with valid school ID, $8 children 12 and under. Live band and dancing after the Saturday show at Panache Dance Studio, 325 E Winslow Rd.]

The Ryder ◆ November 2013

Surviving A Plague

by Brandon Walsh

There’s a moment in How To Survive a Plague, David France’s documentary account of the earliest and darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, when ten thousand men and women march on the nation’s capital, carrying the remains of their loved ones lost to the virus. Officers on horses resisting the crowd, protesters on the frontline form against the White House fence, tossing the ashes forward in unison on the front lawn. A man weeps as he repeats, “I love you Mike.”

Heartbreaking moments such as this appear throughout France’s film, comprised of mostly archival footage, news clips, and home movies. In the decade the documentary chronicles, from 1986 to 1996, the epidemic claimed over 8 million lives worldwide, and yet the film voices a story of profound optimism.

How To Survive a Plague follows the history of the New York-based advocacy group “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power,” more commonly known as Act Up. The organization came into the national spotlight with its inventive and effective media presence, civil disobedience, and its slogan “Silence = Death.”

Realizing that changing culture was not enough to address the lack of government attention towards AIDS funding, Act Up and TAG activists became engaged participants of the FDA’s drug-approval process. As result of this self-education, Act Up’s involvement directly resulted in the emergence of antiretroviral drug treatment, which has saved nearly six million lives since, yet is still unaffordable to many today.


David France

France paces his film quickly, highlighting Act Up’s successes and failures, meanwhile foregrounding the humanity of the passionate men and women who led the movement, who recognized the historic importance of their work as well as the likelihood of their own deaths. The film highlights the effects of the deaths, shaking the internal politics of the organization itself as well as addressing the guilt felt by those who survive today.

In many ways the film acts as a convincing endorsement for grassroots efforts and physical presence as a means of producing immediate social change, specifically relevant upon its release in late 2012, surrounding the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

As the documentary advocates for organized collaborative efforts, it is of little surprise that the film’s credits recognize 30 archival cinematographers by name, several of which noted as deceased. With such in mind the film memorializes the movement as much as it does the bravery of its leaders.

Though France works foremost as a print journalist covering LGBT-related issues, his directorial debut was awarded several accolades, including best documentary at the 2012 Gotham Independent Film Awards and Boston Society of Film Critics, as well as a nomination for best documentary in the 2012 Academy Awards. David France was nominated for a Director’s Guild Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film currently has a 100% fresh rating on the film aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.

During one of the film’s protest funerals, Act Up leader Bob Rafsky says to a crowd, “When the living can no longer speak, the dead may speak for them. Mark’s voice is here with us, as is the voice of Perecles, who two millennia ago mourned the Athenian soldiers, who didn’t have to die, and in whose death he was complicit, but who had the nobility to say that their memorial was the whole Earth.” The film is dedicated to David Gould, France’s lover who in 1992 died to AIDS-related pneumonia.

How To Survive a Plague is a story of movement in the face of blockage, optimism in the wake of loss, voiced through the mouthpiece of those who led a social movement that saved millions of lives, but who are not yet finished fighting.

Director David France will be present for Indiana University’s 35mm screening of How To Survive A Plague on Wednesday, November 20 at 7:00pm in the Whittenberger Auditorium located in the Indiana Memorial Union. Following the documentary, Mr. France will discuss the film and accept questions from the audience.

The event is presented as part of the Union Board Film Series, in partnership with Sexploration Week, Indiana University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Alumni Association, and Positive Link (a program of IU Health). The free, non-ticketed event will be open to the public. For more information visit the Union Board website or Union Board Films on Facebook.

[Brandon Walsh is the director of the Union Board Film Series, an undergraduate senior studying in the Communication & Culture and Telecommunications departments.]

The Ryder ◆ November 2013

Bobbing For Credibility

Bobcat Goldthwait reinvents himself as a writer/director ◆ by Craig J. Clark

“If I had any goals, I really hope I can just keep making small movies. You know, I have a body of work that I’m pretty embarrassed of, so if I could just keep making small movies that appeal to a small group of people, I’d be very happy.” — Bobcat Goldthwait on the commentary for Sleeping Dogs Lie

Of all the standup comedians who entered the public eye in the mid-’80s, Bobcat Goldthwait may be the last one anyone expected to have serious filmmaking ambitions. An early fixture of the Police Academy series (in which he played street punk-turned-cop Zed), he soon graduated to the ensemble of Savage Steve Holland’s One Crazy Summer in 1986, played supporting roles in vehicles for Whoopi Goldberg (1987’s Burglar) and Bill Murray (1988’s Scrooged), and landed one of his own in the stock-picking talking horse movie Hot to Trot (also 1988). After that, the next logical step was behind the camera. The result was 1991’s Shakes the Clown.

"Shakes the Clown"


On its painted face, Shakes seems like a film that can be encapsulated and dismissed in the same breath since it’s centered on the exploits of a foul-mouthed, alcoholic party clown (who is nevertheless capable of bringing joy to children and winning over their parents with his surprising professionalism). All one has to do is sit down and watch it, though, to see that there’s a profound strangeness at this Clown’s core that isn’t even hinted at by its surface trappings or even what is arguably its most famous scene, in which Goldthwait and his fellow greasepaint enthusiasts beat up a group of mimes (their mortal enemies).

For starters, the story takes place within the city limits of Palukaville (“The Nation’s Leader in Lard Production”), which has turned clowning into a cottage industry with businesses – including a clown bar called The Twisted Balloon – that cater directly to them. Naturally, Goldthwait’s Shakes spends a lot of his downtime between birthday parties hanging out at The Balloon with his clown friends (one of whom is played by a pre-fame Adam Sandler) and hitting on his barmaid girlfriend (Julie Brown), who dreams of being a professional bowler. As for Shakes, he hopes to succeed the retiring Peppy the Clown as host of the Big Time Cartoon Circus, but that job goes instead to first-rate asshole and drug fiend Binky (Tom Kenny, later to gain fame as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants).

What little there is of the plot kicks into gear when Shakes is framed for murder by a coked-up Binky, who’s in the middle of a drug deal with a couple of rodeo clowns (yes, the film also has rodeo clowns) when his boss (Paul Dooley) walks in on them. Forced to go into hiding as a mime, Shakes attends a class taught by an abusive taskmaster (Robin Williams, who’s credited as Marty Fromage) and eventually convinces his friends to help him clear his name.

Like its unreliable protagonist, Shakes the Clown doesn’t work 100% of the time, and Goldthwait could have stood to explore Palukaville’s odder corners a little more. (A visit to a rodeo clown bar is a real wasted opportunity since we never go inside.) We don’t even find out where he met single mother Florence Henderson, who comes to in the opening scene with makeup smeared on her face after a one-night stand with Shakes. (“You’re my first clown,” she says, without much conviction.) All told, it would be another decade before he stepped behind the camera again. I guess he figured he had more to learn about his craft.

When Goldthwait decided to get back into the directing game in the early ’00s, he started small with segments of Comedy Central’s The Man Show, Crank Yankers and Chappelle’s Show. This led to him taking the reins of the 2003 TV movie Windy City Heat, which is essentially a feature-length practical joke on aspiring actor/comedian Perry Caravello, who’s impossible to feel sorry for since he’s loud, abrasive, anti-Semitic, homophobic and – worst of all – untalented. Of course, even if he did have some acting chops, it would be difficult for him to show them off with chuckleheads Don Barris and “Mole” (Tony Barbieri) tripping him up at every opportunity.

In addition to directing the film, Goldthwait also plays the director of the film-within-the-film, which is also called Windy City Heat and is about a “sports private eye” named Stone Fury, a part Caravello is right to believe was tailor-made for him. First, though, he has to ace his audition with casting agent “Roman Polanski” (Dane Cook) and beat out his main rival for the role, Carson Daly (playing himself). Once he does and the filming commences, Caravello suffers numerous indignities, as well as a series of petty pranks that Barris and Barbieri play on him, culminating in the myriad delays that make them late for the film’s only public screening.

One’s enjoyment of the final product will depend greatly on how much patience you have for the tiresome antics of Barris, Barbieri and Caravello (and the less said about Tom Kenny’s turn as a gay costume designer, the better). Goldthwait picks up the slack, though, with his directorial affectations, including his insistence on speaking through a bullhorn at all times, even when not on the set, and the boots and jodhpurs he wears as part of his ensemble. Also amusing is his absent producer’s demand that he “get cracking or you’ll be out on the street shooting Hot to Trot 2.” Considering how Windy City Heat turned out – both versions – that may have been preferable.

A solid argument for the belief that nobody can – or should – know everything about their loved ones, Goldthwait’s 2006 feature Sleeping Dogs Lie is about a grade-school teacher (Melinda Page Hamilton) who frets about whether to tell her boyfriend (Bryce Johnson) her deepest, darkest secret after he proposes marriage. And she has every reason to tread carefully since she performed fellatio on her dog when she was a bored undergrad. (This we’re told right at the top of the film, with Hamilton narrating the whole story, so it’s not like it’s a big secret to us.) Even if it was a one-time thing that she immediately regretted, she intuitively understands it’s the sort of thing that can fundamentally change the way a person thinks of you.

Hamilton is still conflicted when she and Johnson head up to her parents’ for a visit, allowing Goldthwait to switch gears and observe how being around her conservative parents (Geoff Pierson and Bonita Friedericy) and bitter brother (Jack Plotnick) throws her even further off her game. Because there wouldn’t be much of a movie if Hamilton never owned up, she eventually does, and her revelation floors Johnson and gives Plotnick ammo to use against her – and he doesn’t hesitate to. Frozen out by her family and ultimately rejected by Johnson, Hamilton gets her own place and goes on the rebound with a fellow teacher (Colby French) who’s curious about her past but doesn’t push her too hard about it. Still, every interaction with her ex or her family is fraught with tension since any one of them could drop the bomb at any moment. That’s when it becomes crystal clear why some pooches should be allowed to slumber.

As dark as Sleeping Dogs Lie sometimes gets, it was a mere warm-up for Goldthwait’s 2009 film World’s Greatest Dad, which stars Robin Williams as a frustrated novelist who ghostwrites an eloquent suicide note for his douchebag of a teenage son (a sullen Daryl Sabara) when he accidentally asphyxiates himself while masturbating. What Williams doesn’t anticipate is the way this simple act will transform his preternaturally unpopular offspring (who was considered a crude, homophobic bully) into a tragically misunderstood martyr – and alter his own life in the process.


This change is most readily reflected in Williams’s relationship with fellow teacher Alexie Gilmore, who seems to be on the verge of dumping him when things turn around for him. On top of that, his poorly attended poetry class is suddenly filled to the brim with eager students hanging on his every word, and the school’s grief counselor is hot to publish Sabara’s journal (which Williams has to forge as well). The only fly in the ointment is Sabara’s sole friend (Evan Martin), who’s well aware of Williams’s deception and could blow the whistle at any moment. That’s really a call for Williams to make, though – just not before he gets his moment in the sun on The Dr. Dana Show, where he nearly loses it on air. In all honesty, it would have saved a whole lot of people a whole lot of bother if he had.

Since Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad established him as a director to watch, Goldthwait has periodically returned to television to work on such shows as Comedy Central’s Important Things with Demetri Martin and FX’s Maron, starring Marc Maron. The project he really poured his heart and soul into, however, was the 2011 satire God Bless America, which proves that as a writer/director he has a lot to say about the culture we live in.

The action revolves around fed-up divorcé Joel Murray (who previously had a walk-on in Shakes the Clown), a man who has had his fill of his inconsiderate neighbors, the braying jackasses clogging up the airwaves, and his undiscriminating co-workers who parrot it back at him, inciting him to rail against society’s ills. He also has to contend with an ex-wife (Sleeping Dogs Lie’s Melinda Page Hamilton) who’s getting remarried and a daughter (Mackenzie Brooke Smith) who doesn’t want to visit with him. On top of all that, he suffers from severe migraines, so after he’s unjustly fired from his soul-sucking insurance job he goes to the doctor and is told that he has a brain tumor, which gives him the chance to do some Ikiru-style soul searching. Instead, he teams up with a young rebel (Tara Lynne Barr) who convinces him that he can do a lot more good by killing others who don’t deserve to live.

To Goldthwait’s credit, it’s really hard to take issue with any of the targets they choose (although the scene where they pick off the people talking and texting in a movie theater can be somewhat uncomfortable to sit through). And Murray is vigilant about drawing the line, which extends to his refusal to sexualize the underage Barr. He’s also cognizant of the need to pick the right time and place to take his final stand against the culture that got him up in arms in the first place. After all, if you have a message for the nation, you want to make sure the nation is actually listening.

That brings us to Goldthwait’s latest, Willow Creek, a found-footage horror film about a couple (played by Alexie Gilmore from World’s Greatest Dad and Bryce Johnson from Sleeping Dogs Lie) who venture into the woods in search of Bigfoot. The true nature of what happens to them is shrouded in mystery, but if his past work is anything to go by, whatever they find (and capture on their ever-present video camera) will surely be worth talking about.

[Bobcat Goldthwait introduces his films God Bless America and Willow Creek at the IU Cinema on October 31st and appears at the Comedy Attic on November 1st and 2nd.]

The Ryder ◆ November 2013




Once known for his screechy-voiced stand-up persona, over the past few years Bobcat Goldthwait has been carving himself a niche as a writer/director of darkly humorous independent films.



Bobcat Goldthwait as the title character of his misunderstood directorial debut, Shakes the Clown.



Bobcat Goldthwait, in his unbilled cameo as a limo driver, commiserates with Robin Williams in World’s Greatest Dad.



Tara Lynne Barr and Joel Murray take aim at an increasingly intolerable society in God Bless America.


Culture And The Power Of Words

An Evening with Author Nicole Mones ◆ by Carol Shapiro

Today I heard a radio announcement for story hour at 3:00 at the Mitchell County Library and was immediately transported back to my own childhood. My mother encouraged me to be an avid reader and I experienced many enthralling story hours at our local Carnegie Public Library. I can still hear Virginia Jones’s animated voice as she spun fascinating tales that kept us all listening intently.

That was my introduction to public libraries and since then libraries have been among my favorite haunts, from the library at Washington University where I majored in English literature, to my present connection with Bloomington’s own top-ten library (5th among 329 ratings in its league) where I served as a member of the Friends of the Library Board.  I am now involved in bringing a storyteller to our city—award-winning novelist Nicole Mones, whose fourth novel, drawn from her extensive experiences in China, is forthcoming.  She will give a free public talk at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater on Saturday, November 16, at 7:00 p.m.  Following the lecture will be a ticketed champagne and music reception at the library, which will give readers the opportunity to engage with the author in person.

Book Cover

As its many visitors and long-time residents will agree, the Monroe County Public Library is truly exceptional in its offerings.  In an era in which many libraries have had to cut back or even close, the MCPL continues to grow, receive awards, and stay on the cutting edge of library technology.  By becoming a member of the Friends of the Library I found a way to show my gratitude for all I have received, free of charge, over the years.  Amazingly, this organization is able to contribute close to $100,000 annually to the library budget.  The money, raised through membership dues, book sales, an annual Campaign for Excellence and other activities, is used throughout the library to sponsor and enhance programs, many of which benefit children and teens.  Funds are also used for purchasing patron requests, providing supplies for the VITAL adult literacy program and CATS (Community Access Television Service) and presenting adult programs including movies, professional development for library staff and much more.

Stellar among these programs is the biennial Power of Words (POW). Presented as a gift back to the community POW features a nationally recognized writer whose literary talent and universal themes provide insight into local issues and concerns.  The goals of the program are to provide an opportunity to become involved in a visible community of readers and to experience an author in the context of the many cultural traditions found within Monroe County.

In this age when the local and the global are culturally and economically intertwined, and US-Asian connections are important and intricate, the choice of author was easily made.  As a young liberal arts graduate with an adventurous turn of mind, Nicole Mones transplanted herself to China in the mid-1970s, soon after the end of that country’s Cultural Revolution, to start a textile export business that kept her criss-crossing the Pacific for nearly two decades.  In the course of these travels and business dealings, she became immersed in Chinese art, culture, language and cuisine, the latter to the extent that she became a food writer covering the Chinese restaurant scene for Gourmet magazine and several major American newspapers.  From the riches of these experiences she composed three novels that weave modern western and Chinese aesthetics and values with more traditional perspectives, each focusing on a particular cultural theme while exploring the human side of cross-national connections.

The first of the three books that I read, The Last Chinese Chef, is her most recent and also the only American finalist for the prestigious international Kiriyama Prize in 2008 and a World Gourmand Award winner in the Chinese cookbook category.  It is a novel from which I gleaned a rich knowledge pertaining to traditional Chinese cuisine in spite of the fact that the book has no recipes!  The protagonist, Maggie McEllroy, is given a writing assignment in Beijing that eventually involves sampling and assisting with the preparation of ancient traditional Chinese recipes, described in “The Last Chinese Chef” (a book within a book), which had supposedly been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  I found myself in awe of the reverent, almost spiritual nature of traditional Chinese food preparation.  An example is a seemingly simple dish made of tofu with crab sauce, which involved using thirty crabs and hours of patient tending.

Her second novel, A Cup of Light offers an education in the history and qualities of ancient Chinese porcelain while weaving in themes of romance and intrigue.  It also addresses issues of authenticity and inherent beauty as well as the dilemma of economic values versus the pricelessness of treasures from the past.  This novel has been chosen for discussion by the local Friends of Art book club, as have other of Ms. Mones’s novels by additional book discussion groups.

Mones’s first novel, Lost in Translation, recognized as a New York Times Notable Book, takes us into the world of archaeology.  What begins for translator Alice Mannegan as a trek into the remote deserts of northwest China quickly turns into a journey of the heart.  As the country itself struggles to reconcile its own past and present, Alice must come to terms with the complicated relationships in her own life.  Lost in Translation won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best work of fiction by an American woman as well as the Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Association Annual Book Award.

Visit the event website for video discussions of each of the three novels and a link to the author’s own website.  Mones’s novels have been translated into 18 languages and movie rights have been purchased for The Last Chinese Chef.  Her fourth novel will feature a historical setting in the Chinese jazz age.

To obtain either a free general admission pass or purchase a premium ticket to the author event please visit the library website or drop by the Friends of the Library Bookstore. A premium ticket costs $50 and must be purchased in advance.  It includes reserved seating at the author talk; admission to the gala reception; free reserved downtown parking during POW events on November 16; and merchant discounts during November.  Free general admission passes to the author talk also include merchant discounts.  All proceeds will be used to support Mones’s visit and other programs and materials for the library.

IU Lifelong Learning offers a total event package.  “Chinese Culture and the Works of Nicole Mones” will be taught in three evening classes, November 7, 14 and 16.  The cost for the course is $65 which includes the lectures, priority seating for the author’s talk at the Buskirk-Chumley, a ticket to the champagne reception, and parking for both events.  Guest lecturers with be Sue Tuohy from the IU Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Sara Laughlin, director of the Monroe County Public Library. For more information visit the IU Continuing Education website or call (812) 855-9335.

Other related events include a Books Plus discussion on The Last Chinese Chef led by Sarah Bowman at 2:00 p.m. on November 3 at the library.

Continuing partners for the Power of Words event include Indiana University Lifelong Learning, the IU Fall Themester Advisory Committee, local media, book discussion groups, bookstores and other businesses.  Also involved is the staff from the IU International Center and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.  Sponsors for this event include the Friends of The Library, Monroe County Public Library, the City of Bloomington, Ivy Tech Community College, IU Themester 2013, WFIU and WTIU.

The Ryder ◆ November 2013

The Not-So-Comic Art Of Chris Ware

A Master of the Graphic Novel visits Bloomington ◆ by Ivan Kreilkamp

[Graphic novelist Chris Ware gave a public lecture November 12, 2013, at the IU Cinema. His visit was co-sponsored by the College Arts and Humanities Institute, the Ruth N. Halls Fund, and IU’s Themester 2013: Connectedness: Networks in a Complex World.]

Canons are made to be argued about, but the work of Chris Ware would be included in virtually anyone’s list of the most essential modern graphic novels or long-form works of comic art. Ever since Art Spiegelman’s Maus: a Survivor’s Tale won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, graphic novels have been gradually working their way into broad recognition and respectability, increasingly accepted as potentially as aesthetically complex, emotionally resonant, and culturally significant as novels or films. But the number of true crossover texts in this genre – prize-winning, non-super-hero books of comic art that have been widely reviewed, taught, and read by followers of contemporary literature who don’t identify themselves as comics fans – remains small.  Among the most obvious candidates for such a canon would be Maus and Maus II, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World (1997), Alan Moore’s From Hell (1999), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003), Alison Bechtel’s Fun Home (2006)—and at least two of Chris Ware’s books, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) and last year’s Building Stories (2012).  Indeed, one could easily make the case that with the one exception of Art Spiegelman himself, who virtually invented the genre and shepherded it into existence, no contemporary comics artist or graphic novelist has achieved greater national and international acclaim than Ware.

Ware in 2009

Chris Ware

At a time when graphic novels were still often ignored by the mainstream press, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth became Maus’s first genuine successor in terms of wide acclaim and broad success. It was given “book of the year” distinctions by TIME, The Village Voice Literary Supplement, and Entertainment Weekly, and was also awarded a 2001 Guardian First Book Award and an American Book Award, “distinctions previously awarded,” as Ware puts it in a characteristically ironic author bio, “only to authors who could not draw.”  Comics critic and historian Doug Wolk has described the book as “a history of a family’s pathetic fantasies and painful realities, rendered in a style whose maniacally precise, composed, geometrical frostiness counterbalanced the story’s emotional brutality.” Jimmy Corrigan comes across as some kind of improbable cross between Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons and a work of contemporary fiction of the most austere variety: say, a Thomas Bernhard or Peter Handke novel. If one model for graphic novel cross-over success has been that of gripping memoir or personal history – Maus, Persepolis, and Fun Home all fall into this category, stories of personal-cultural trauma or crisis and breakthrough – Jimmy Corrigan is a much less emotionally accessible narrative.  It tells a complexly interwoven story of two different father-son relationships, each marked by abandonment and regret: in present day Chicago, Jimmy Corrigan, a Charlie Brown (or Bartleby)-ish middle-aged office drudge, and the father he barely knows; and 80 years previously, Jimmy’s grandfather James, and his own father.  Ware describes Jimmy Corrigan in the book’s afterward as his attempt to grapple with his relationship with his own absent father.  After rereading the text for a final edit, he explains, “it occurred to me… that the four or five hours it took to read is almost exactly the total time I ever spent with my father, either in person or on the telephone.”  He also observes that the book itself turned out to be about the same size as the urn in which his father’s ashes were interred.

So Jimmy Corrigan is, in effect, a tombstone for Ware’s own father. Yet for all its bleakness, the book somehow also manages to be altogether pleasurable to read and a delight to look at, in part because Ware is such an exquisitely skillful and dedicated visual artist and craftsman whose work cites a dizzying array of 20th century graphic conventions from magazine and comic book advertisements, children’s books, and any number of additional forms of paper and print ephemera.  Following the success of Jimmy Corrigan, Ware’s work was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial of American Art, and he is deeply respected by comic geeks for his skills in the lettering, coloring, and fanatically-obsessive production of his books.

Last year Ware topped his own success with Building Stories, a still-more original creation that was named by Time, Newsday, and the New York Times as one of its ten best books of the year. Building Stories is in some ways less a book than a slightly mad assemblage that can simultaneously bring to mind artist Joseph Cornell’s famous surrealist boxes, and a container for treasures stored under the bed of a pack-rat 11-year-old boy.  Building Stories comes in (and also is) a sturdy, approximately 16” by 12” box that is itself elaborately inscribed, and which contains fourteen distinct mini-books and other items: a fold-out newspaper, a thick cardboard game board, several comic books of various sizes, a mock children’s “Little Golden Book,” several posters and broadsides, etc., each designed and constructed with unbelievable care.  These 14 items, which can be read in any order, don’t narrate a single coherent story, although they do, in aggregate, offer a multifaceted examination of the lives led by a number of inhabitants of a single apartment building in Chicago (including one lascivious bee), with a particular focus on an unnamed young female protagonist.  This woman, a former art student with a prosthetic leg whom we see pass through a lonely early adulthood and young motherhood, is this book’s version of Jimmy Corrigan, a partial proxy for the artist himself.

Building Stories has qualities that invite comparison to contemporary post-modern, hyper-textual fictions.  It is non-linear, fragmented, a collection more than a narrative.  Yet is other ways, it is thoroughly and even perversely old-fashioned and backward-looking: it weighs a ton, would almost need to be its own carry-on item for a plane trip, and is unimaginable as an e-book (or even as a paperback). It clarifies Chris Ware’s status as one of the most original and compelling contemporary artists and authors in any genre.

Ivan Kreilkamp is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Indiana University.

 The Ryder ◆ November 2013